in rad­i­cal time

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Kather­ine Dun­ham, the an­thro­pol­o­gist, dancer, chore­og­ra­pher, and teacher who was in­stru­men­tal in in­tro­duc­ing African-in­flu­enced dance to a wide au­di­ence, would make a fan­tas­tic sub­ject for a movie. Or two. It would be dif­fi­cult to fit ev­ery­thing into 90 min­utes.

Born in 1909 in Chicago, Dun­ham be­gan her an­thro­pol­ogy stud­ies at the Uni­ver­sity of Chicago in the 1930s, and her work con­tin­ued, con­stantly evolv­ing, un­til her death in 2006 at the age of 96. She spent time in Haiti, where she did ethno­graphic field stud­ies and be­came a voodoo pri­est­ess; she had a ground­break­ing ca­reer on Broad­way and in the movies; and she started a school of dance and cul­ture in New York City where James Dean, Eartha Kitt, and Mar­lon Brando were stu­dents.

Dun­ham formed Bal­let Nè­gre, the Ne­gro Dance Group, and the Kather­ine Dun­ham Dance Com­pany, tour­ing the world for decades. Pres­i­dent John­son ap­pointed her cul­tural ad­vi­sor to the govern­ment of Sene­gal. She was a po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist dur­ing the for­ma­tive days of the civil-rights move­ment, and she es­tab­lished a school in East St. Louis with an arts pro­gram for neigh­bor­hood chil­dren. At the age of 82, she en­dured a 47-day hunger strike to draw at­ten­tion to the plight of the Haitian boat peo­ple.

Dun­ham, called a “one-woman revo­lu­tion” by Dance Mag­a­zine in Au­gust 2000 and “dance’s Kather­ine the Great” by The Washington Post, left be­hind a com­plex, mul­ti­fac­eted legacy. But lega­cies need stew­ard­ship, and schol­ars in an­thro­pol­ogy, dance his­tory, black stud­ies, and other fields want to en­sure that her rep­u­ta­tion will con­tinue to grow. To that end, the School for Ad­vanced Re­search is host­ing a sem­i­nar from Sun­day, June 6, to Fri­day, June 11. A pub­lic lec­ture, “Kather­ine Dun­ham and the An­thro­pol­ogy of Dance,” takes place on Wed­nes­day, June 9.

The sem­i­nar’s goal is to de­velop a plan for fu­ture study. It is co­or­di­nated by El­iz­a­beth Chin, a for­mer dancer and cur­rent pro­fes­sor in the depart­ment of crit­i­cal the­ory and so­cial jus­tice at Oc­ci­den­tal Col­lege. She sees the sem­i­nar as an op­por­tu­nity to as­sem­ble a “dream team” of schol­ars, in­clud­ing other dancers-turned-an­thro­pol­o­gists, to cri­tique, col­lab­o­rate, brain­storm, and dance.

Dun­ham had to de­cide early on whether to stay in academia or pur­sue her love for per­form­ing. She chose the stage. In a phone in­ter­view, Chin de­scribed how the chore­og­ra­pher, in­flu­enced by the lead­ing cul­tural the­o­rists of her day, brought back dances, mu­sic, and sto­ries from Haiti and other Caribbean is­lands and then pre­sented them to the au­di­ences of New York with very lit­tle re­vi­sion or the­atri­cal­ity. The “prim­i­tive” look of these dances helped start a move­ment in au­then­tic cul­tural dance that con­tin­ues to this day.

Dun­ham was ahead of her time, ac­cord­ing to Chin, who re­ports that the lat­est push in an­thro­po­log­i­cal cir­cles is to get the re­search out in front of the pub­lic, in what­ever medium works. That’s ex­actly what Dun­ham be­gan to do in the 1930s. “She al­ways wanted us to in­clude a cul­tural, ed­u­ca­tional el­e­ment in each class,” said Sarah Anindo Mar­shall, a cer­ti­fied teacher of Dun­ham’s tech­nique who worked ex­ten­sively with the chore­og­ra­pher dur­ing years of sum­mer in­ten­sives in St. Louis. These were like Dun­ham con­ven­tions, at­tended by dancers from all over the world. The orig­i­nal Dun­ham school in New York ad­ver­tised classes in dance, drama, per­form­ing arts, hu­man­i­ties, cul­tural stud­ies, and Caribbean re­search.

To­ward the end of her life, Dun­ham’s knee in­juries kept her in a wheel­chair most of the time. “If she ever de­cided to get up dur­ing a class, to demon­strate some­thing, or make a point, we would in­stantly sur­round her, wor­ried that she would fall,” Mar­shall said. “I worked with hun­dreds of teach­ers, all of the best, mem­bers of the com­pany. But they’re all dead now.”

Dun­ham was a grand­mother fig­ure to Mar­shall, who is orig­i­nally from Kenya. Mar­shall was dis­cov­ered in a bal­let class in that coun­try by a Dun­ham com­pany mem­ber who was liv­ing there while her hus­band was in the Peace Corps. Mar­shall quickly took to the rigor and ground­ing of the new tech­nique, which she stud­ied with­out learn­ing about Dun­ham. It wasn’t un­til she was vis­it­ing New York years later and took a dance class that felt un­can­nily fa­mil­iar that she learned that she had been danc­ing Dun­ham tech­nique at home. Shortly af­ter, she sought out Dun­ham her­self and be­gan a ca­reer as a stu­dent and teacher of the tech­nique. Speak­ing by phone from her home in Los An­ge­les, Mar­shall said, “She was a wise woman; you’d al­ways want her opin­ion. But she was very strict in class.”

Dun­ham’s tech­nique is a re­flec­tion of the chore­og­ra­pher’s own syn­the­sis as an artist. A blend of bal­let, mod­ern, and many African­based dance forms from the Caribbean, the tech­nique is no­to­ri­ously

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